Catharsis

March 3, 2011 — 8 Comments

There is the impulse when we’re angry or frustrated to take that out on other people. To be short or cruel just to slacken the tension we’ve built up. Sometimes it is harsh words, sometimes it is violence but it’s the same release. I think about that scene in Fight Club where Jack funnels all his rage and pain into destroying Angel Face.

Obviously the appropriate response is to process it, to dissipate it through evaluation and verbalization. I realized the other day that the reason I like running is because it’s inner-directional. All athletic activity is cathartic. Running takes that catharsis out on ourselves. Which honestly, is the only place it should go.

Feel disappointed in yourself, go further than you intended. Feel angry, punish yourself by turning up the treadmill. Just fucking sick of it all, go long and hard—excel. Tired? Fuck you, go faster. You were going to stop? A few more steps.

Think about what it means to play other sports with a vengence. It’s normally characterized by aggression projected outwardly at someone else. It’s never how fast they got back on defense. Never how willing they were to dive perilously for a catch. Never the restraint they showed at bad pitches. It’s about hard they hit someone else, the punishment they inflicted on someone’s body or face, how they’re “taking over the game.”

There is this notion in philosophy about retreating inside yourself. And finding a respite in doing so. In fact, not just a break but a refueling. “Love the discipline you know,” Marcus said, “and let it support you.” The idea is to find solace in self-control, rather than some brief satisfaction in abandoning it.

What I like is the process of using the treadmill to take it out on yourself. Because you know your body can handle the brunt of it. Instead of inevitably taking it out on other people, either literally so in a different sport or in the course of daily life. To walk away and be able to look at things fresh, knowing that whatever baggage you bring to a given situation has no place on other people’s shoulders or in their laps. To have a designated place in your life where you unload and dissemble it, before it piles up unmanageably high. Running for me is the activity that best approximates that, but of course there are others. It’s just a matter of discovering it and amply scheduling enough of it.

At Peace

February 16, 2011 — 1 Comment

Heinrich Schliemann’s whole life was an exercise in reification. As a commodities trader, he made his fortune through unswerving self-confidence, repeatedly, from next to nothing in St. Petersburg, Indiana, California and in Paris. Then, through a blind faith that the epic poetry of Homer was literal fact, he discovered the lost city Troy. And then Priam’s Treasure at Mycenae. And then at Tiryns. There’s a story that during the excavation of the last grave shaft at Mycenae, Schliemann unearthed a corpse whose facial features were briefly still visible. In that instance, he wrote to a friend, he recognized the face of King Agamemnon just it has appeared to him in a dream. That is to say, conclusive proof was his own imagination.

After some early missteps during his digs (Schliemann ruthlessly destroyed large parts of Troy), he found a collaborator named Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was basically the opposite of Schliemann. As a biographer wrote, he was “a pillar of strength and sanity, and unlike Schliemann he was uncompromisingly honest with himself, free from vanity and secure enough to be indifferent to success.” Virchow was the professional behind the scene, who barely batted an eye as Schliemann eagerly claimed all the credit because he was too busy directing and channeling the operation to the levels it ultimately reached.

I feel like that throwaway writeup of Virchow is about the highest descriptive achievement someone can accomplish. To be self-aware, to be assured, and to be content. It’s funny because in a way, those are the attributes that Schliemann pantomimed his entire life, with the endless searching, gratuitous wealth and constant demands for academic respect. The difference to me is that is sounds like one of them felt at peace and the other exhausted. But they both, at the end of their lives, were working on the same projects and passionately chased the same discoveries.

If I had to be one, after reading a lot about Schliemann, I would unquestionably have to be Virchow. I mean this in the most deprecating sense, because I don’t think I have the talent, the drive or the boldness to be Schliemann. What I take from the contrast illuminated in comparing the two is that we ought to try to follow the example of Virchow. And follow it fully by finding ourselves a Schliemann, whose boundlessness creates possibility out of impossibility. Someone who through sheer force of will makes their beliefs about the world true. That’s who you want to be work with, but probably not be. And I guess if you’re already and inalterably a Schliemann, fucking find yourself a Virchow. Because you need one or you’ll blow up, just like all people cursed with the natural skills of a trader inevitably do.

Convenient

February 9, 2011 — 15 Comments

I think one of the best litmus tests of quality in books about the internet is how they treat Second Life. Because Second Life is almost certainly, objectively not important or relevant enough to warrant most coverage. So when they use it, it tells me one of two things. They either have no idea what they’re talking about, or the example was just too lush for them to pass up. In the latter case, it’s the perfect strawman—a vehicle that can take as much projection and as much manipulation as they need. If you’ve got psycho-theorizing to do about culture or the internet, look no further than Second Life. It’s able, ready and willing.

In other words, it’s convenient. I guess that’s awesome for them but how well are we served by a textbook example of the confirmation bias? Sure, the reader may suspend disbelief and think of the point rather than how it was made. But they shouldn’t have to. The author should be right. And they should know what they’re talking about.

I like when you think you know what the rhyme will be in a song lyric, and then it goes in a direction you didn’t suspect. That’s a songwriter avoiding the convenient impulse. Even if you’ve never thought that before, I think there is a little rush, a little jolt, that comes when the words didn’t follow the trajectory we subconsciously anticipated. Why? Maybe because it means they’re smarter than us or they caught sight of a route we didn’t or it’s just nice to be surprised.

There is something to be said about pushing yourself to be the person that ignores the convenient choice. To commit yourself to understanding the topic well enough that you don’t need to make rely on its “Second Life example.” Also, to start to take some pleasure in seeing the obvious—the available option—and deliberately passing on it. Because you trust that you’re good enough find something better, though it may be more difficult. The ability to survive through shocks and changes and the unexpected is bred into us. We’re evolved for it. It seems to me that we may as well cultivate a channel for expressing those skills rather than allow them to atrophy.

Wisdom

January 28, 2011 — 31 Comments

There’s this thing people say: “if the 16 year old version of me saw this they’d kick my ass.” It always seems to show up around matters of responsibility, compromise, maturity, finances or anything we’d have once labeled “adult.”

I think the underpinning assumptions of this quip are so baseless as to deserve reconsideration. Namely, who gives a fuck what a 16 year old cares about anything? [For this, see whatever pseudo-strawman age we come up with to denigrate ourselves against.]

As we get older, we’re made aware of three inalterable truths about our existences. That there is a objective reality outside ourselves. Then there is what we want this reality to be. And that these two facts overlap less often than we’d like and more often than we probably deserve. The longer you’ve meditated on this, the wiser you are.

Yet, here we are comparing ourselves to a child in order to judge the rightness or wrongness of decisions we make about our lives.

It might feel like there is some refreshing certainty in ignorance but it is a chimera. Ignore for a second what you remember yourself as at [any age] and hold in your mind what the average representative of that group is like. Chances are you were much closer to the latter than the former. (Have you talked to a 16 year old recently? That’s who you think knows what’s important?)

The key is to hold yourself against something who has more of a sense of the world, not less—or worse, someone who doesn’t know it at all. To consider it from the perspective of a man. Notice how we never seem to say: what would 40 year old me think of this? And naturally, it’d be better to take ourselves out of the equation entirely, find someone who surpasses us, and ask how they would feel.

A False Sense

January 13, 2011 — 32 Comments

There is a bunch of data that shows that the more we talk about things, the less we tend to actually accomplish them. This is because—and I’m sure you can think of a person in your life who does this a lot—the act of articulating the goal entails visualizing the achievement of it, and thus partially gives us credit for it in our own minds and reduces the motivation to actually do it. So doing this diminishes the payoff. There are many people smarter than I who have written about this, but there is a word for such a process that I think its very important. It’s called reification.

To reify means turn something abstract into something concrete.

It was something Walter Lippman talked about when it came to the news. The news, he said, is just a journalist’s limited and simplified version of the world—a pseudo-environment. For many of us, this version of reality is inserted between us and the complicated and infinite reality of the actual situation which we were not able to personally experience. But our responses to this pseudo-environment don’t operate in that pseudo-environment because they are behavior. They happen in the real world. This is the danger of reification. Though what we’re acting on is not real (or only partial real), the act is. And worse, we’re only aware that this has happened when our behavior creates a “noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.” What about when our response is just a thought? Or an opinion? That is, most of our response to a pseudo-environment are not overt, they are beliefs, emotions, and senses—things we carry around for a long time before acting on, unaware of the false foundation they were built on.

It something we do to ourselves all the time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about what you want to do and what you’d like to achieve. Problems arise when this process of dreaming and imagining becomes its own end. You reflect and internalize the emotions and feelings that you’ve evoked, which after a while come to ossify and be the foundations for new images and you get further and further from reality. Think about it this way: You’ve got a picture of your dream house in your head that you may one day be able to own. Totally fine. Then after a period of time of meditating on this, it starts to take on a sort of mental firmness—you know its ins-and-outs because you’ve imagined it so many times. Then you think how much it might be worth if you were to ever sell it, perhaps $2.5M dollars. Then you’ve got the picture of $2.5 million dollars in your head. What could one do with all that money? And so you begin to think of what you could buy or have or the respect that would come with it.

In other words, one illusion becomes the foundation for another illusion which in turn has its own illusions. Each time you whip through this cycle the first illusion starts to feel a little more real—have a little more substance—since it’s was the impetus for the ones that came after it. You’ve tread it more often, which has the affect of substance but is still just air.

A famous academic paper in the 70′s coined a term for the costs of too much information: narcotizing dysfunction. The authors described a world where people are bombarded with more than they can possibly consume, or possibly comprehend as a result of the mass media. In the face of the overwhelming deluge, we spend more and more time reading and listening, leaving less and less space for action. Knowing about problems comes to replace doing something about them. And beneath our superficial understanding of our surroundings is a growing apathy. Information becomes a substitute for action because it is a manageable and achievable end, action is replaced because to chase it is to accept futility.

The problem of reification is that, by definition, it blurs the line between what is real and what is not. In the complexity of a hypothetical, we can become so lost as to forget that we’re debating a conditional. That nothing has actually happened, and that what goes on in our head stays there. It’s easier this way because by confusing time spent with things done we basically eliminate any critical benchmark we might be judged against. Things might be illusionary, but they are pleasant illusions. Our minds function in a kind of iterative loop and as we mix our interpretation of events with the events themselves, one amalgam is mistakenly amalgamated into another—our sense of the world, an amalgam of amalgams.

Advice: be the quiet one in the corner, working away. Avoid information you’re unlikely to actually make use of, and avoid extrapolations as much as you can—because “this means that which means this which could become” is just a chain of illusions based on something you’ll probably never have to deal with. Don’t tell people what you do, if you can get away with it. Just lie, or downplay it. Plan as little as possible, set your life up so there’s less you need to plan about anyway (rent, have less stuff, keep commitments loose). Refuse to accept conflation—this is not the same as that, no matter how similar they might seem. Insist on critical evaluations, even negative ones. Finally, accept that you have this impulse to reify. It is natural to feel drawn towards making the abstract into the concrete (we’re not good with things that turn out to be for naught). Just recognize when you’re doing it. The point is that it’s better to know when you’ve submitted to something rather than be blindly enslaved to it.